It's 8 a.m., and few souls are stirring in the old, gray Howard County Circuit courthouse.
Upstairs, Judge Donna Hill Staton is behind her desk in a medium-green skirt set, reading documents that will be part of proceedings on this, her first full day in court at the end of her first full week as a judge.
Judge Hill Staton smiles when visitors enter her chambers. Before the day ends she'll smile a number of times -- in and out of court. She and fellow new jurist Diane O. Leasure quickly have gained a reputation among deputies and clerks as being two of the friendliest faces in the staid old courthouse.
"I'm enjoying it and I feel quite comfortable with what I'm doing," says Judge Hill Staton, 38, who on Nov. 20 was sworn in as the county's first black Circuit Court judge.
Her ascent to the Circuit Court bench was not without controversy. She and Judge Leasure were appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening as part of his stated goal to diversify the state's benches. His choices drew criticism from some of the county's lawyers, who said the women were outsiders. A county District Court judge and a local lawyer already have filed to challenge them in the March elections.
During her first full week, Judge Hill Staton has heard pretrial motions in civil cases and completed an orientation process.
Shortly after 9:30 a.m., she enters her courtroom, smiling, despite that she's holding court in a small, converted grand jury room that would not be adequate for a jury trial.
The county has only four full-sized courtrooms for the five judges.
So she proceeds in a room with bare white walls, two tables for lawyers and 14 chairs for spectators. "We're very cozy here," she says to the lawyers as they make their way to the tables.
They are in court for a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the parents of a 15-year-old girl who was hit by a car while crossing a road to catch a school bus. Lawyers for Howard County, county schools and the driver were asking for a judgment that would prevent the case from going to a jury trial.
Judge Hill Staton nods slightly at some points of the lawyers' arguments, takes notes and interrupts periodically to ask questions. The county lawyer argues that the county was not responsible for putting up warning markers or a stop sign.
"Is it the position of the county that you didn't have any actual knowledge of the school bus stop?" she asks.
When the lawyer for the girl's family argues facts that were not contained in filings, she gently warns him not to stray too far.
"I'm only permitted to include whatever information is submitted in motions," Judge Hill Staton says.
After all sides complete their arguments, she says she'll issue a decision at a later date.
PD She later says that she doesn't plan to keep people waiting long
for her decisions. "What I plan to do, and what I expect of myself is that I will work efficiently," Judge Hill Staton says.
Her next case will take up the rest of the morning and go through the afternoon. A lawyer is trying to collect a $12,406 debt from the owner of a construction company who has failed repeatedly to obey judicial orders.
The defendant, wearing a shirt and blue jeans and not represented by a lawyer, is going up against a gray-suited
Judge Hill Staton allows the lawyer more latitude to question the delinquent contractor than she normally would give, she says, because the man has violated court orders to appear for court and turn over documents.
She recesses the case for lunch and returns to her chambers. There, she meets with her law clerk, Shara Mervis, a recent graduate of the University of Baltimore law school.
At noon, she attends a lunch meeting with Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney and Judge Leasure in a conference room near the judges' chambers to plan their schedule for managing next week's criminal docket and a smattering of civil cases.
Judge Sweeney is the lead criminal judge for the week, and he parcels out cases to the pair of new judges, who eagerly accept the workload as they lunch on salad and sandwiches from the Bare Bones restaurant.
"We're happy to be here," says Judge Leasure, who became the county's first female Circuit Court judge when she was sworn in Nov. 13.
That's music to the ears of Judge Sweeney, one of the judges overwhelmed by an expanding caseload.
"I'm pleased as punch that they're here," he says after his new colleagues leave. "They're both bright and very enthusiastic and just ready to roll up their sleeves and do the work. We needed to have judges like them who hold up their end."
In the afternoon, Judge Hill Staton returns to the tiny courtroom to conclude the hearing over the debt. She finds the defendant in contempt of court and orders him to spend 10 days in jail beginning Dec. 18. She says he will not have to report to jail if he complies with earlier court orders to make payments and turn over documents by Dec. 15.
Back in her chambers, the judge pushes paperwork aside and talks about her path to making legal history in Howard County. She had wanted to be a lawyer since she was 12, she says, and held onto that goal while playing basketball and running track at Wilde Lake High and while at Princeton University, where she was an English major.
She graduated from George Washington University law school and served as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Joseph C. Howard.
"I've always viewed the profession as one that would give me an opportunity to make a difference in people's lives," Judge Hill Staton says. "If you're a person of integrity and good will and have a concern for people, you can do good things."
In 1983, the judge went to work for Piper & Marbury, a powerhouse Baltimore law firm. Like Judge Leasure, she was trying cases in state and federal courts in Maryland.
This week comes another challenge -- criminal cases. Although she's dealt almost exclusively with civil matters, she says she intended to practice criminal law before Piper & Marbury called.
"I've really embraced this job," she says.